The Delhi government recently announced that it will offer ‘free’ rides to women in all DTC buses and Delhi Metro. It announced that it will bear the financial burden for this move. Soon after the decision, controversy has emerged over it. The central government and opposition parties have criticized the decision and have expressed their disbelief. The Delhi metro rail corporation has asked for over eight month’s time for its implementation. While some people in Delhi have termed it as unachievable, others have welcomed the decision. Many working women and students have held the decision as in the right direction. The decision according to the Delhi government is to provide safety to the women so that they can travel safely anywhere without having to worry about the cost and security.

Delhi Metro is viewed as a safe means of travel by many women in the city as opposed to the DTC buses or private cabs where there is always a fear of sexual harassment lurking behind. The infrastructure, easy access to security and reserved coaches for women, keep them free from such worry in Delhi metro. By offering women a means to navigate safely in Delhi, Delhi Metro has helped women to take up newer opportunities. Now women can take up jobs independently, travel to farthest points in the Delhi city and also, can spend leisure time exploring around the city.

Does taking free rides make women look weaker?

After the scheme was announced many women contended that they don’t need such ‘freebies’ and that they can afford to pay for the metro rides. They are saying that this is a discriminatory rule as they must be considered equal to men and it is below dignity not to pay fares. But many who are arguing this forget that this step will effectively uplift thousands of those women who couldn’t afford the luxury of travelling in the Delhi metro earlier. These women are equal stakeholders of our public transportation as the rest of us. They also deserve to travel safely.

The rigid and meritorious notion of ‘equality’, ‘where everyone is equal’ doesn’t take into account the systematic and graded inequality that persists in the society. It is not becoming ‘unequal’ to acknowledge that women are harassed when they travel; many of them forced to discontinue jobs and colleges if the place is considered far and many live in constant fear of something ‘bad’ that may happen to them while travelling. This affects women’s self-esteem and
also perpetuates feeling of helplessness. Thus, it is not an isolated fight of an individual woman to look for its solution rather it is duty of the government to invest in public transportation and make it reliable for them.

This step will effectively uplift thousands of those women who couldn’t afford the luxury of travelling in the Delhi metro earlier. These women are equal stakeholders of our public transportation as the rest of us.

Making public transportation accessible for all

Those who argue against the decision by equating subsidy as necessarily ‘bad’, also miss the point that Delhi Metro and DTC are public run institutions. They shouldn’t be run by the government to solicit profit, rather to provide the facility to all. Unlike the private vehicles which are exclusive in nature, these are meant to be in the reach of everyone in the city. The idea of public means inclusivity; it has to include those who can’t ‘afford’ to pay for such a service. Free
education, free healthcare, and free transportation are basic rights and time has come that this debate occupies the center stage. The twofold hike in the price of Delhi Metro last year forced many to stop travelling by it, it had restricted the domain of ‘public’ to a ‘few’ entitled people. It needs to be acknowledged that even earlier the government was running Delhi Metro at ‘subsidized’ rates but those subsidized rates only helped the middle class to travel by Metro, it could never reach all sections of the society. Now this step should open the way for serious and
important discussion on the idea of ‘public’.

Also, how can we let Delhi Metro go out of our reach when we all have contributed towards its building? People have given their blood and sweat, have let their homes be bulldozed, stood for uncountable hours waiting in traffic at metro construction sites for years. It belongs to everyone in the city and the government has to fix the responsibility for running it. We have to make it accessible for everyone in the days to come.

Bringing the environment into urban planning

The entire last year saw uproars from the student community in Delhi to take back the twofold increase in Delhi metro fares. Students from various universities of Delhi which included Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and JNU staged various protests for affordable public transportation facility for them. The student’s demanded metro concessional passes similar to the ones given in DTC buses. What one missed to see in those protests was that students were also demanding an environment friendly public transportation. They were bringing an important
aspect of environment in the Delhi city’s administration and planning.

Those who argue against the decision by equating subsidy as necessarily ‘bad’, also miss the point that Delhi Metro and DTC are public run institutions. They shouldn’t be run by the government to solicit profit rather to provide facility to all.

Today public transport is being made free in many cities. Dunkirk, France where it was recently introduced successfully made it into a sustainable model. Last year in February, Germany announced that it was planning trials to introduce fare-free public transport in five cities. In China’s Hunan province, free transit is in operation since 2008. It is seen as an effective step to encourage people to take public transport in place of private vehicles and cars. Recently, Luxembourg announced that it will make its public transport completely free for everyone. It will be the first country to do so. They hope that this step will reduce private vehicle movement, decongest roads and will be effective in safeguarding the environment.

In Delhi, we are also witnessing an environmental emergency. Air pollution is one of the biggest challenges before the people in the city. A recent study by university of Texas held that Indians are losing over 1.5 years of their lives due to air pollution. Air pollution is pushing people specially who are homeless and poor into severe healthcare problems and the cycle of poverty. At this juncture it becomes altogether important that a radical rethinking on public transportation is made. Also, as the Delhi city expands, huge investment is needed in public infrastructure and
transportation. The DTC buses have to increase, its parking space has to be created, Delhi metro needs expansion and for Delhi city to survive, public transportation has to become a top priority for both the state and the central government. Let the issues of women and environment come together and prevent making Delhi as a Gas chamber.

Kawalpreet Kaur is a student activist and the President of All India Student’s Association, Delhi.
She studies law at University of Delhi.

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